Science fiction has a plethora of ideas about what happened in the past and what to expect from the future. Unfortunately, not all of those ideas are exactly plausible in reality. In Suspension of Disbelief, we’ll take a look at the best ideas from sci-fi movies, books, comics and videogames to see where (and if) they intersect with the real world.
The spaceship is a staple of the science-fiction genre. Whether it’s the massive deliberate submarines of Star Trek or the swift single-pilot planes of Star Wars, spaceships are a common element in sci-fi imaginings. Unfortunately, we don’t live in a world where riding in a spaceship is as common as getting into a car or even flying in an airplane. But that doesn’t mean spaceships are exclusive to the world of science-fiction. It’s easy to compare the limited spaceward progress humanity has made to Star Trek and feel a little disappointed that we’re not at that level yet, but that makes it all too easy to blind yourself to what we have accomplished. Humanity has achieved a long-dreamt-of science-fiction creation and we’ve been doing it for decades.
Click through the gallery to see a history of some of the most important spaceships, rockets, crafts, shuttles, capsules, and stations that humanity has built.
Hailing from upstate New York, Cameron Wade is a freelance writer interested in movies, videogames, comic books and more. You can find his work at protogeektheblog.wordpress.com.
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On April 12, 1961, Yuri Gagarin, a 27-year-old pilot in the Soviet space program, launched into orbit in Vostok 1, becoming the first human in space, beating the United States to the feat by less than one month, and clearly demonstrating the Soviet Union's dominance in the Space Race. Gagarin flew east over the Pacific Ocean, looping around the tip of South America, crossing the Atlantic, and reaching the west coast of Angola in just one hour. Soviet scientists were still worried about the effect that weightlessness of space would have on a cosmonaut so Vostok 1 was controlled entirely by ground control crews and automated systems in the spacecraft itself. Using the Sun's light as a guide, Vostok 1 reoriented itself and began to burn its retrorockets in order to decelerate for re-entry. At 23,000 feet above the ground, Gagarin ejected from the capsule and parachuted safely to Earth. The capsule deployed its own parachute, but still hit the Earth hard enough to leave a small crater and bounce a few times before coming to a stop. The entire flight, from launch to landing, had lasted just 108 minutes. Gagarin and the Vostok's capsule had touched down about 174 miles from their planned landing site. Dragging his parachute behind him and still wearing his spacesuit and helmet, Gagarin walked to a nearby farm and, after explaining to the understandably nervous workers that he was a Soviet cosmonaut who had just fallen from space, called Moscow to be retrieved. Gagarin was awarded the USSR's highest honor, the Hero of the Soviet Union, and April 12 was made a national holiday. Gagarin died while training in a fighter jet in 1968. The Vostok's capsule, the spacecraft's only surviving component, is currently housed at the RKK Energiya Museum in Moscow.
Images via UniverseToday.com, Wikipedia
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The Soyuz Programme
The Soyuz programme consists of two parts, the rocket and the spacecraft, both of which have become the gold standard of space vehicles. The spacecraft and the rocket, along with their respective variants and evolutions, have been in use since their inception in 1966. The Soyuz was originally intended to be the ship that took the Soviet Union to the Moon, but the Soviet Union abandoned that mission shortly after the United States beat them to it. Instead, the Soyuz was used to get to and from Soviet space stations. Though the Soyuz didn't win the glory of shepherding humanity to the Moon, it has outlived its contemporaries and successive generations of US spacecrafts. After the United States discontinued the Space Shuttle program in 2011, Soyuz rockets and spacecrafts became the only way to get astronauts to and from the International Space Station. With 1,700 manned and unmanned launches during its lifetime, the Soyuz rocket is the most used launch vehicle in history and the Soyuz spacecraft is the safest, most cost-effective, and most enduring spaceship humanity has ever created.
Images via NASA
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While Soyuz has endured like no other spacecraft, the Apollo program is still widely considered the most successful in history because it is the first and, so far, only spacecraft to take humanity to the Moon. Between 1968 and 1972, Apollo carried 24 people to the Moon and allowed 12 of those to walk on its surface, the most famous of which being Apollo 11, the first successful Moon landing. Like all the Apollo missions, Apollo 11 was launched using a Saturn V rocket, the most powerful rocket ever used, standing nearly 60 feet taller than the Statue of Liberty. Once Apollo reached orbit and the final stage of the Saturn rocket detached and fell back to Earth, Apollo was comprised of of a Service Module, which contained the ship's propellants, oxygen, and other systems; a Command Module called Columbia, which pilot Michael Collins would remain in during the Moon landing; and a Lunar Module called Eagle, which took Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin to and from the surface of the Moon. On July 21, 1969, with at least 600 million people across the planet watching, Armstrong and Aldrin stepped out of the Lunar Module and onto the Moon. They spent two hours on the moon, testing the best method of movement, collecting rock samples, speaking to President Richard Nixon, and taking pictures of the lunar landscape, each other, and the Lunar Module for NASA's engineers to analyze. Among the items left by Armstrong and Aldrin was an Apollo 1 patch, in honor of the three astronauts who died while testing the Command Module in 1967, and medals commemorating deceased Soviet cosmonauts including Yuri Gagarin. They spent a total of 21-and-a-half hours on the Moon before launching again to rejoin Columbia. The three astronauts splashed down in the Pacific Ocean on July 24. The success of Apollo 11 and its successors, combined with the Soviet Union's failure to make a rocket to rival the Saturn V, led them to end their own lunar program, signalling the end of the Space Race.
Images via NASA
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With their plans to go to the Moon looking less desirable after Apollo 11, the Soviet Union instead focused on creating a spacecraft that could remain in orbit around the Earth indefinitely. The first such space station ever built was Salyut 1, a 65-feet long and 13-feet wide series of capsules that could be used to test the effects of weightlessness on the human body over an extended period of time, perform telescopic and ultraviolet measurements on stars, and, if need be, act as a pit stop for a possible future Moon mission. On April 22, 1971, just three days after Salyut 1 launched, three cosmonauts aboard Soyuz 10 attempted to dock with the station, but, due to an error in their ship's automatic system that didn't recognize Salyut 1, the Soyuz kept firing its rockets to reorient itself, preventing the crew from fully securing their ship to the station. Running low on fuel, the mission was abandoned. Soyuz 11 launched on June 7 and successfully docked with the station. The three cosmonauts spent 22 days on the station, setting a record for the most amount of time spent in space. After returning to the Soyuz and undocking from Salyut 1, Soyuz 11 prepared for re-entry by detaching its orbital module from its descent module. In the process, a valve between the two modules broke and the ship lost pressure almost instantly, asphyxiating the three crewmembers in less than a minute. To date, the crew of Soyuz 11 are the only people to die in space. In the aftermath, missions to Salyut 1 were put on hold so the Soyuz craft could be redesigned. When the redesigns took longer than expected, the decision was made to end Salyut 1's mission in a controlled de-orbit with the little fuel it still had left. On October 11, its rockets were fired to slow it down and Salyut 1 re-entered the atmosphere, disintegrating over the Pacific Ocean.
Image via AmericaSpace.com/Roscosmos
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Skylab was the first American space station, orbiting around the Earth between 1973 to 1979. Astronauts in Skylab conducted over 300 experiments, studying the Sun's solar flares and coronal holes, measuring visible, infrared and microwave radiation coming off the Earth, monitoring the effect of microgravity on the human body, and more. It was launched on the final Saturn V rocket and staffed by three three-person crews between May 1973 and February 1974. Each broke the record for longest continuous time spent in space extending the record to 28 days then to 60 days and then to 84 days. The third Skylab crew left the station in February of 1974 and though there were plans to send a fourth crew, no ship ever returned to Skylab. This was partly due to funding issues (as American interest in space had waned considerably since the Moon landing) and partly because NASA was planning on using the then in-development Space Shuttle program to recrew the station and correct its waning orbit. NASA projected that the shuttles would be done by 1977 and that Skylab would remain in orbit into the 1980s, but the shuttles faced huge delays. As it became clear that they wouldn't be able to return to Skylab anytime soon, NASA had to prepare for Skylab's eventual fall to Earth. It was projected that tons of debris would survive re-entry into Earth's atmosphere and break into hundreds of pieces that would scatter over an area 4,000 miles long and 1,000 miles wide, crashing at hundreds of feet per second. Though the odds of a piece of debris hitting someone were relatively low – 1 to 152 – Skylab became an international sensation. On July 11, 1979, ground control used the little bit of fuel left in Skylab to alter its orbit, aiming it for a stretch of ocean 810 miles south-southeast of South Africa. But Skylab didn't break up as quickly or fall as slowly as NASA had predicted and it flew over the planned crashdown site. Instead it showered debris into the Indian Ocean and across a small stretch of southwestern Australia about 85 miles long. Nobody was hurt and no damage was caused, but it was quite an ignoble ending for America's first and, so far, only space station.
Image via NASA
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The Space Shuttle Program
The Space Shuttle was the first reusable spacecraft and the first winged spacecraft to make a manned spaceflight. The program commenced in 1972 and, after the final Skylab flight in 1974, became NASA's primary focus. NASA planned on using the Space Shuttle to construct an orbiting space station and then to replace it with another space vehicle in the 1990s. When the space station, which eventually became the International Space Station, took far more time and resources than expected to complete, plans for a new vehicle to replace the shuttle were put on hold. By the end of its service, the shuttle would be in operation for twice its originally projected lifespan. The Space Shuttle consisted of an orbiter (generally referred to as the shuttle), two white solid rocket boosters that would be recovered and reused after each launch, and an orange disposable external fuel tank, which was jettisoned once the shuttle passed out of the atmosphere and turned off its engines. Unlike previous spacecrafts, like Vostok and Apollo, that parachuted to the ground or ocean in order to land, the shuttle was unique in that it would glide to a runway and land like an airplane. Six shuttles in total were built: Enterprise (1976), which was used to test the shuttle's gliding and landing procedures and never went to space, Columbia in 1981, Challenger in 1983, Discovery in 1984 (pictured), Atlantis in 1985, and Endeavour in 1992. The shuttles completed a combined 135 missions, including deploying the Hubble Space Telescope, performing five servicing missions on it, carrying commercial satellites into and out of orbit, and, for much of the latter part of program, working on the ISS by taking sections of it into orbit and shepherding supplies and astronauts between it and Earth. Despite its successes, the Space Shuttle's legacy has been marred by two notable disasters: the destructions of Challenger in 1986 and Columbia in 2003. Though it never became as cheap, safe, or frequently used as originally planned, the Space Shuttle came to be a symbol of the United States' leading role in space exploration. The Space Shuttle's final mission was an Atlantis launch on July 21, 2011 to resupply the International Space Station.
Image via NASA
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The International Space Station
The International Space Station is often looked at as the modern pinnacle of human achievement in space. The ISS is a football field-sized space laboratory that weighs over 900,000 pounds, orbiting 250 miles above the Earth at a speed of 17,000 miles per hour. Constructed by five different space agencies – NASA, Roscosmos (Russia), Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, European Space Agency (Europe), and Canadian Space Agency – it is the most expensive project ever undertaken by humanity, costing an estimated $150 billion. The ISS originally began life as an American space station called Freedom that was announced in President Ronald Reagan's 1984 State of the Union address. NASA made plans to incorporate modules built by JAXA and ESA into Freedom, but years of delays and underfunding left the project on the brink of cancellation without a single component in orbit. In 1993, in an attempt to save the station, NASA made an agreement with Roscosmos to collaborate on a space station. The first module, Zarya, launched on November 20, 1998, marking the official start date of the International Space Station. Over the next two years, three more modules were added and the first crew arrived on November 2, 2000. The ISS has been continuously occupied by a rotating crew of astronauts and cosmonauts from all over the world since that day. The ISS is the largest spacecraft ever built, currently comprised of 15 pressurized modules: seven from the US, five from Russia, two from Japan, and one from Europe, with at least one Soyuz craft docked at all times to act as a lifeboat in case of emergency. Like most other space stations, the ISS is a functioning laboratory, conducting research on biology, meteorology, space weather, dark matter, physics, astronomy, and the effects of long-term microgravity on human biology, among many other subjects. The International Space Station is often used as a symbol of unity for the entire planet, an example of what the competing nations of the world can accomplish when working together. The ISS is currently set to operate until at least 2024 and NASA plans on using it as a base to launch future asteroid and Mars missions.
Image via NASA